Amanda Gorman's Success Stirred A Bleak UndercurrentRoundup
tags: inauguration, poetry
Manisha Sinha is the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut and the author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition.
Amid the phenomenal response to Amanda Gorman, who delivered a poem to wide acclaim at President Joe Biden's inauguration, lurked a bleaker current: responses that summoned for me the story of enslaved early American poet Phillis Wheatley. In 1773, Wheatley became not just one of the first Black women but one of the first American women to be published when her book of poems, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," was printed in London. Wheatley traveled to England with her master's son when her book was published, and according to biographer Vincent Carretta, probably returned to America only on the condition she be granted her freedom.
As Carretta has put it, Wheatley was "the unofficial poet laureate of the new nation-in-the-making."
Wheatley was a genius by any standard. Brought to America from Africa in 1761, at 7 years old, she was educated by her enslavers who had lost a daughter her age. Wheatley learned English and Latin and wrote her first poem four years later. So remarkable was the story of the young slave poet that a bevy of Boston worthies, including John Hancock, examined her and testified to the authenticity of her poems to confirm what many surely doubted -- that a young enslaved Black girl could produce such polished work.
But along with praise came unabashed, racist criticism. The West Indian slaveholder Richard Nisbet dismissed her "silly poems." Thomas Jefferson, who speculated on black intellectual inferiority in "Notes on the State of Virginia" (1785) wrote, "Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism." Here Jefferson simultaneously acknowledged Wheatley's poetry while condescendingly dismissing them, much like Gorman's modern critics. Just in case, he also slyly questioned her authorship for all those who held up Wheatley's poetry as proof of Black equality. For a long time, American literary critics cast such judgment on Wheatley's poems.
Recently, a writer for the conservative British magazine, The Spectator, criticized Gorman in language that echoed these dismissals of Wheatley's talent. After condescendingly complimenting Gorman on her appearance and performance at the Inauguration (and before comparing her diction and delivery unfavorably to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s), journalist Melanie McDonagh called the "The Hill We Climb" a "terrible poem." Line by line, as she questions the poem's grammar, syntax and style, she ironically punctuates her criticism with such verbal treasures as "Eh?" and "Dunno." Clearly conversant in the colonial Lord Alfred Tennyson's school of poetry, McDonagh concludes, "The Hill We Climb turns out, I think, to be just a bit rubbish." I "dunno" but I think she missed an "of" before rubbish in that sentence.
African American women have long been at the receiving end of such half-baked and belittling put-downs. McDonagh's dismissal was staggeringly patronizing in its picking apart of Gorman's structure, grammar and use of poetic devices: "I got the sentiment, I got the stream of consciousness, the emotion, I got the sub-Martin Luther King flow. But trying to make the whole thing cohere, structurally and grammatically -- and in terms of sense -- was another matter." Another critic, Malcolm Salovaara of The American Conservative, went even further, calling Gorman's poem and performance propaganda and "nothing less than an embarrassment to our country."
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